“One of the places I know to be the closest to what I know of Caribbean culture is Brown Sugar,” Empress Bee, a first generation Caribbean American whose mother is Jamaican and father is from Barbados, said.
The Brown Sugar she is referring to is Brown Sugar Bakery and Cafe, a Trinidadian restaurant located at 219 S. 52nd St.
“Food is the number one way I find a connection to my culture, and Brown Sugar is definitely a vibe,” Empress Bee said.
According to employee Cherry Ann Charles, Brown Sugar opened in the early ‘90s and became a safe space for all things Caribbean in the heart of West Philadelphia.
While Philadelphians may often think of Jamaican food when it comes to Caribbean cuisine, Brown Sugar stands apart from competitors as a Trinidadian restaurant.
It may be a little difficult to find this eatery on the internet, though. It isn’t on any delivery apps and doesn’t have a website.
Brown Sugar Bakery & Cafe serves authentic Trinidadian food featuring staples of Caribbean cuisine. Its menu can change from week to week, based on the availability and freshness of ingredients.
Empress Bee said the restaurant is most known for “doing doubles” on the weekends. Customers anticipate a limited supply of fried curried chickpea sandwiches smothered in peppered tamarind sauce known as doubles.
The display cases are stocked with traditional baked goods. There are cakes, sweet buns, coco bread, and about half a dozen other pastries made fresh on a regular basis.
A display fridge of drinks offers a variety of Caribbean favorites, like Jamaican Ting, kola Champagne, and specialty juices.
Prior to the pandemic, Brown Sugar made in-house smoothies. These smoothie juices are now prepared ahead, and feature plant-based island ingredients like sorrel and hibiscus, as well as superfoods such as sea moss gel.
Brown Sugar invites customers to experience Caribbean culture using all their senses, not only enticing the eyes and tongue, but ears as well.
According to Charles, prior to the pandemic, the compact bakery and cafe would rearrange its space to host live music shows to give customers a place to fete and whine.
During the day, when it was not party central, customers enjoyed a space where they could commune with other Caribbeans to eat, pass time, and talk about parties, cricket, and movies.
Much has changed since the pandemic. These days, the spirit and energy lives on through photos of dancehall, soca, and reggae artists that line the trim of the dining room and steel pan beats pulse through a radio speaker.
“Customers still come in,” Charles said. “Usually towards the end of the week. Around when they get paid.”
Restrictions due to COVID have changed the format of Brown Sugar’s operations, but the small staff seem to manage to uphold its values. No longer waiting on customers dining-in, Charles finds new ways to implement customer care by engaging guests in conversation while they pick up their food.
“Customer care is key,” Charles said. “We have consistent customers and people who just stop by. We want everyone to feel welcome.”
Their efforts don’t go unnoticed.
“I’ve known about this place for a long time,” Tanea Brown, a West Philadelphia native, said. “I come back here whenever I’m on this side.”
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